Bird songs and spring arrival dates

BIRD COLUMN FOR April 18, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

The Time Schedule for the Spring Migration During the Next two Weeks
Why do birds sing and Why is so much of this singing done at dawn?

Spring arrivals

This week a number of new birds appear from the south. These include the brown thrasher, the chipping sparrow, the ruby-crowned kinglet and the white-throated sparrow.

This is the chipping sparrow that is due back from the south now. In breeding plumage it has a reddish cap, a black line through the eye and a distinct white line above it. The breast is white or grayish and without a central breast spot. (This chipping sparrow photograph was provided through the courtesy of Kevin and Jay McGowan of Dryden, NY )

In the winter plumage of the chipping sparrow, the red is not there, but the crown is brown with darker lines running front to back . Keep this in mind, and if you spot a red-capped sparrow in winter, it is most likely a tree sparrow down from the north.

Very often observers report chipping sparrows to me in the winter, but here in Central New York almost every such bird turns out to be a tree sparrow whose central breast spot was not noticed.

On or about April 25 we will see the first warbler. Usually it is the yellow-rumped warbler. Others species due then are the green heron, the spotted sandpiper the house wren and the common tern.

Why do birds sing?

In the breeding season, male birds select a territory , an area where they will nest. Since only about one egg in four successfully hatches and produces a youngster that survives, they must take elaborate steps to lessen competition and to find food for their offspring.

They try to attract a mate to their territory and keep other males from nesting nearby. That is, they are more likely to produce young and to find food for them if other nests of their species and not packed in too closely.

These purposes are served by the song which is a proclamation that a female would be welcome and that other pairs are to stay away.

Once a mate has been selected, the male still keeps singing to identify himself to other males and to keep them away. The song also tells his mate that he is nearby.

For a given species, the song is almost the same for all individuals, but not exactly. For example, we can recognize a song as that of a cardinal, but the song of each male differs just a little in tone or pitch from all others of his kind. You and I are not aware of this difference unless we use some electronic equipment, but other male cardinals can identify the singer. It is almost as if, as the bird sings, he gives his name or home address over and over again.

For the song to be effective, it is very important that it be clearly heard and understood by the other males. They will then know that the territory has been established and just whose it is. If another noise interferes or if the song is somehow garbled, then the message will not be understood and will not serve the purpose for which it is intended.

Why is there more singing at dawn than at other times of the day?

This brings us to the question, why is there a dawn chorus? Why is there so much bird singing just after sunrise and so much less later in the day? Are songs more clearly heard at dawn? Can they be better understood at a distance at dawn?

At that time of day sound travels better and all the special notes and tones that identify a particular bird can be heard. There usually is not much wind at dawn. Gusts would cause a sound to fade in and out. The heating of the air by the sun at mid day affects the sound in a similar way.

Have you ever been at a lake and noticed how the sound of your neighbor's radio comes and goes as the wind changes? Whether a note is loud or soft may help to identify a particular bird and all such tones must be heard.

At dawn there is less wind and heat and the identitiy of the singer can be determined better at that time than at mid day when other noises spoil the song.

Prof. Paul Handford of the University of Western Ontario has recently done some experiments on this in which he played recorded songs of the swamp sparrow and the white-throated sparrow at different times of the day and measured the strength and quality of the sound at different distances. He tried it in a wooded area and in an open marshy habitat.

Clearly, from his experiments the sounds at a distance were more often garbled at mid day than early in the morning. In the woods, the tree trunks and limbs also reflect the sounds and little echoes are produced.

At a distance such songs heard by the ear include the original song plus all the echoes. Thus it does not sound the same as the original song made by the bird. It is similar to the difficulties we have in following a conversation when several people are talking at once.

Birds have developed the habit of doing much of their singing early in the morning when the songs can be heard more clearly and at greater distances. Those that sing at dawn do a better job of keeping competitors away and are more likely to successfully raise their young.

March Feeder Survey results & Spring arrival dates

BIRD COLUMN FOR April 4, 2004

By Ben P. Burtt

The Spring Migrants Due During The Next Two Weeks

The Results of the March Feeder Survey


This week, starting April 4, the wood duck and the sapsucker should arrive from the south. Those juncos that went further south for the winter will start to drift through to the north. Flickers will be poking about on our lawns for insects. The tree swallow is due now.

Next week, starting April 11, we should see the first towhees, bank swallows, barn swallows and perhaps even a purple martin or two. The field sparrow is due, but it generally stays in grassy fields where we hear it before we see it and it seldom comes to our feeders. The American bittern will be in the marshes ..


During the first week of March, readers tallied the birds seen at their feeder or visible from their home and sent in a list. From the summary of those reports we can see what birds are here and which ones are scarce or abundant this spring in upstate New York.

The birds at the typical feeder.

The number of species per report ranged from three for the 3rd grade class at the New Haven Elementary School to 36 for Ken Zoller at West Winfield. The average feeder had 17 species this time.

What birds were most often reported on the March Feeder Survey? Over 90% of the reports listed chickadees and mourning doves. Over 80% of the people listed downy woodpeckers, crows, cardinals, goldfinches and juncos.

About three-fourths of the observers had white-breasted nuthatches. A bit over 70% of the reports listed starlings and blue jays. In past years almost every feeder had a blue jay, but their numbers are down this spring and I don't know why.

Two-thirds of the observers listed red-winged blackbirds and Canada geese.
A bit over half the feeders had house sparrows, hairy woodpeckers, house finches, tree sparrows, grackles and robins.

CAPTION: The number of blue jays has been lower than normal this winter. In past years, the jay was reported by over 90% of those who watched their feeders. Only 78% reported it this February and now in early March it is down to 72%.( Photo, courtesy of The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, NY. To learn more about the Institute, visit its web site at )

Rare Birds
Some birds were reported by only one person. Matt Young spotted an immature golden eagle near Georgetown and a goshawk as well. Matt also had a flock of 57 evening grosbeaks. At Marcy, Doreen Hayes tallied the only kestrel.

At Hastings, Bill Purcell reported a woodcock and a horned owl. Linda Quackenbush has had a saw whet owl all winter. Paul Radway was the only person to list a white-crowned sparrow this time. At West Winfield, Ken Zoller tallied the only fox sparrow, horned lark and hooded merganser. Judith Fazio saw the only kingfisher in Syracuse.

The only brown creeper was reported by Gail Swistak of Cleveland. Four people listed chipping sparrows in early March and that bird does not normally show up until April. Were they tree sparrows whose breast spot was not visible? A field sparrow was reported at Baldwinsville and this bird rarely shows up before April.

Whether you send in a list or not, this feeder survey can answer many of your questions. The types of questions that are asked most often are:

Is it unusual to see this bird now?

Has anyone else seen one recently?

Here is an easy way you can get an answer to such questions. Print this column and you will have a complete list of the birds seen during the Feeder Survey for the first week of March.

Here is how it can be useful to you.

Suppose you have just heard a bird song that sounds like a killdeer. Is this too early? Have any of them arrived from the south?

To get the answer, look for the killdeer on the list below. There you will find: "killdeer 3 (2)". That means that of 100 reports sent in for the first week of March,, a total of 3 killdeer were tallied by 2 people. So very few killdeer had appeared by the first week in March.

If the killdeer had not been on the list, you would know that none had arrived by survey time.

Redpolls were still here in substantial numbers and past surveys show that they will be here for the April survey, but return north soon after that.

The March list.

Below is the list of all species reported. Print it post it on your refrigerator for a few weeks in case you want to know whether a particular species has arrived or whether very many are being seen.

The first number for a species on the list is the number of individual birds of that species on 100 reports. The second number is the actual number of reports that listed that bird.

Horned grebe 2 (1); great blue heron 7 (4); snow goose 3,614 (14); Canada goose 6,803 (62).

Ducks: wood 7 (2); black 5 (2); mallard 102 (18); ring-necked duck 8 (1); goldeneye 25 (2); bufflehead 5 (2); hooded merganser 1 (1); common merganser 30 (3); red-breasted merganser 1 (1) and turkey vulture 22 (9).

Hawks: golden eagle 1 (1); harrier 3 (3); sharp-shinned 10 (10); Cooper's 19 (19); goshawk 1 (1); red-tailed 30 (22); kestrel 1 (1); pheasant 7 (5); ruffed grouse 4 (4); turkey 228 (13); killdeer 3 (2); woodcock 2 (1).

Gulls: ring-billed 468 (19); herring 69 (9); black-backed 1 (1); rock dove 205 (22); mourning dove 600 (92).

Owls: horned 1 (1); saw-whet 1 (1); kingfisher 1 (1).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 53 (37); downy 192 (89); hairy 88 (55); flicker 9 (8); pileated 10 (8); horned lark 2 (1); blue jay 235 (72); crow 528 (86); raven 11 (4).

Chickadee 418 (95); titmouse 89 (49); red-breasted nuthatch 48 (30); white-breasted nuthatch 131 (76); brown creeper 4 (2); Carolina wren 4 (3).

Bluebird 29 (1`3); robin 258 (52); mockingbird 2 (2); cedar waxwing 132 (4); starling 1,510 (71); cardinal 282 (84).

Sparrows: tree 389 (54); chipping 14 (4); field 1 (1); fox 1 (1); song 18 (14); white-throated 61 (20); white-crowned 1 (1); junco 428 (80).

Red-winged blackbird 1,502 (65); rusty blackbird 11 (2); grackle 970 (54); cowbird 112 (19); purple finch 9 (6); house finch 313 (55); redpoll 956 (31); hoary redpoll 4 (2); pine siskin 23 (6); goldfinch 1,090 (80); evening grosbeak 73 (3); house sparrow 640 (56).

Feeder survey starts
The April feeder survey starts today, April 4, and continues through Saturday. Please watch your feeder this week and send in a report.

For each species, report the largest number you see at any one time during the next seven days.

At the end of the week, send your list to Ben Burtt by regular mail or email. Use the appropriate address that is printed near the top of the home page.

If you would like to participate and have not done so before, you can read the complete directions by clicking on LIBRARY at the top left corner of this page and once there, select "Feeder Survey Directions